If this is coming out, then I'm staying in

A drama about a lesbian military policewoman is top of the bill in Channel 4's new season. Good news for the lesbian viewers of Britain? Sophia Chauchard-Stuart doesn't think so
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Channel 4 released its new schedules yesterday morning, trumpeting the drama programme The Investigator as one of the highlights worth staying in for this spring. Helen Baxendale, of Cardiac Arrest fame, stars as a lesbian member of the Royal Military Police who becomes assigned to the Special Investigation Bureau. The very bureau whose chief job is to root out lesbians (and gay men) in the armed forces.

So, will The Investigator be a serious, in-depth look at a harrowing subject which destroys lives-or just another excuse for producers to get a bit of girl-on-girl action on-screen? Could it be that such hard-hitting and affecting subject matter - being thrown out of your job for your sexuality - signals a tide turning and that lesbians are being taken seriously at last?

Since the frenzied excitement over "lesbian chic" in the early Nineties, the instances of sapphic love in the movies and on television have increased from a few dreary mentions of the "My best friend is a lesbian and I don't know how to handle it" kind to the full-blown, big-budget thriller Bound, which is now pulling them in at the box office. After all the fuss about Beth on Brookside and the lesbian couple in Emmerdale, the lesbian singer kd lang becoming the "face" of Mac cosmetics, and English rose Sophie Ward proudly displaying her girlfriend in public, lesbians retain a a high profile in the media. But that does not mean we like what we see.

I went to see French Kiss, last year's film with Victoria Abril as a sexy bisexual who chooses to have both a husband and a female lover in her life. I watched a press preview with lots of female journalists, most of whom were heterosexual women. We giggled throughout, thoroughly enjoying ourselves at the predominantly sassy portrayal of female sexuality and humour. It was, as they say, a feel-good movie.

I then went to see the same film on its general release and have never felt so dirty in my life. I sat in an audience made up mostly of straight men, some with their girlfriends who shifted nervously in their seats. The whole tone of the movie changed for me as I suddenly saw it through their eyes. The men were titillated and the women felt uncomfortable at being there. It made me think twice about trumpeting how great it is to see lots of lesbian portrayals in the cinema and on television. Sometimes it feels like being one of those small exotic animals in cages at the zoo that "normal" people poke their fingers at, hoping not to get bitten.

When the Channel 4 series "Dyke TV" was on last year, I was asked by heterosexual friends what I thought about it. Then someone said, "Oh, but it wasn't for you to watch was it? It was more for us to be educated."

And there's the rub. Lesbians on screen are not there for the benefit of gay women. That is too small an economic market to target. Fair enough. Mostly, if not always, lesbians are there to titillate. The image of two women having sex is always going to be fascinating to straight men, as long as they don't feel threatened. To be honest, it is also fascinating to lesbians, but it is weird sitting in a cinema when both you and the man sitting next to you are lusting after the same character.

As Vogue points out this month, most gay women still cannot "come out" at work. It is still not acceptable to many employers and colleagues. Even when working for a supposedly liberal company, many professional women choose not to be open about their sexuality for fear of prurient interest in their sex lives. One woman in the Vogue article said, "I have enough trouble being a 'sassy woman' let alone 'a dyke'."

One woman in her late twenties, who didn't want to be named as, like many lesbians, she is not "out" to colleagues at work, went to see Bound and was not amused at her cinema-going companions. "When I walked in with another woman, the cinema was half-full of the sleaziest men. They were slumped in their seats with six places between each of them and the man behind us munched his popcorn, furiously speeding up through the sex scenes. It was horrible, and when we left, these men were staring at us and eyeing us up as if to say, 'There's some real ones in the flesh'.

"The only amusing moment was when the character played by Jennifer Tilly was asked by her boyfriend what 'Corky', played by Gina Gershon, did for her that he didn't. When she answered, "Everything that you couldn't", we burst out laughing, but there was a stony silence from everyone else. That isn't what those men had gone to the cinema to hear."

Actress Jackie Clune, co-presenter of GLR's Gay and Lesbian London show points out that actresses who are gay in real life wouldn't be allowed to play the Gershon and Tilly roles in Bound. "There's no way that Hollywood would put money behind a film with real lesbians playing dykes on screen, it would be too threatening. And I loved the fact that, in all the interviews Tilly and Gershon did, there were big disclaimers in every paragraph about how they really, really are straight in real life and 'what a laugh' they had doing the sex scenes."

The interesting fact about some of the more recent portrayals of lesbianism is that real-life lesbians are colluding with their on-screen image. Cult author Susie Bright, who wrote Sex Tips for Girls, was hired as technical adviser on Bound and took Gina Gershon to lesbian strip clubs in New York. Purely for research purposes, of course. Unfortunately, the hackneyed "butch" portrayal that Gershon's research resulted in was laughable.

On the one hand, some lesbians say, it is great that lesbians are finally appearing on screen in big-budget movies, albeit as dubious killers or thieves in Bound. Film-maker Emma Hindley, who made Zero Budget about lesbian low-budget films for Channel 4's last "Dyke TV" series, thought Bound was great, even though it was "watered down dyke erotica".

But there's a but. If Bound does well at the box office, it might persuade Hollywood that more films should be made with lesbian lead characters. "The only problem for me," Hindley says, "is that there always has to be an 'issue' - our lives are never looked at as they really are. Bound may open up the way, but when lesbian characters are built into the narrative like straight characters, then we'll be seen on the same level as them, and that's the way forward"